Getting your kids to open up and actually talk over the dinner table can seem like a monumental feat. Help the conversation flow with advice from Jeanne Muchnick, America's Dinner Mom.
What scares you most: figuring out what's for dinner, or figuring out how to get your children to open up and give you more than "I don't know" or "Fine" when you try to start a conversation?
I have to admit, both can be pretty daunting for any busy, on-the-go mom. The trick is to avoid the mundane ("How am I getting to tennis?" or "Who's driving me to piano?" qualify), and instead get your kids engaged. The key is asking the right questions. "Did you have fun at school today?" practically begs for a "Yes" or "No" response. Be more specific to prompt your brood to open up: "I heard you were learning about the Presidents. Who do you find most interesting? Why?"
Of course, in order to do this, you need to be attuned to what's going on in your child's life. Most teachers are available on email should you want to get a specific handle on what your kids are learning that particular week. Another option is to keep up with your child's homework assignments, term papers, and tests (try taking a peek inside his textbooks, too!). And talk to other parents in your children's lives - they may have a more chatty youngster that can clue you in to some conversation fodder.
The bottom line: We need to slow down and show our kids we are listening to them. This not only helps strengthen family bonds but ensures good habits once kids reach those challenging teenage years. After all, experts say, the benefits of the family sitting down to dinner together are as far-reaching as they are immediate. By sharing, talking, giving and receiving feedback and suggestions, children gain confidence not only as they tell their stories, but also as they participate in the verbal exchange. "Life lessons - learning respect, recognizing boundaries, appreciating the positive effects of constructive criticism, bonding through laughter - all can occur within the dinner hour and create memories that inspire and influence throughout a lifetime," assures Beryl Meyer, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Nyack, NY.
More helpful talking points:
Fork it over.
Take a fork, tie a ribbon around it, and call it the "talking fork" (a big serving fork is good for dramatic effect). Before everyone leaves the table, they need to own the fork and tell a story. It can be about their day, or anything else, but they need to share something. This works well with younger children who are enthusiastic about using their imaginations and being the center of attention, if only for a minute. Applauding at the end of everyone's story, however short or long, is also important.
Have a bowl-a-thon.
Do's and Don'ts
-Be entertaining yourself, disclosing something about your own day.
-Ask fun questions the whole table can answer, such as: "What was the funniest thing that happened today? The most surprising? The kindest?"
-Make conversation relevant to the developmental ages and lives of your kids.
-Ask open-ended questions like "How was your day?"
-Ask performance-based questions that could cause stress.
-Pepper your children with questions while they're trying to eat.
Literally place a bowl or other container in a central part of the house (the kitchen or dining room table perhaps?) and encourage family members to put items in there for discussion later. It could be an article ripped from the newspaper, a recipe someone wants Mom or Dad to try, a book, a drawing, a rock, or a leaf. Use your imagination.
Be creative with your questions.
Some possibilities: "Was there a time today when you were courageous? How were you creative today? What are you most thankful for?" I know many parents that start off by going around the table and having each person share the "best part" or '"worst part" of his or her day. Another likes saying one thing that made them mad, sad, and glad that day. Parents play, too!
Be honest, and show your flaws.
Asking kids of all ages for input helps you get them in your corner. "Hey guys, I could use your advice with this situation I'm having at work. Can you help me?" Children love to feel that their opinion matters. This kind of discussion gets your kids focused on problem-solving. It also helps ensure that they'll be more likely to come to you when they have an issue.
Try family-neutral topics.
Some families may want to skip to discussions about themselves and go straight for events - news, or local and seasonal events, instead of focusing on one particular family member or topic.
Make dinner fun.
Do the occasional out of the ordinary thing by dressing the table up with seashells for a "beach" theme and talking about favorite vacation memories. Or put on lively music and discuss why you do (or don't) like what you hear; tweens and teens may love this option if you let everyone take turns creating the playlist.
Penny for Your Thoughts?
Penny Stones are engaging ice breakers on recycled glass stones that were created by a stay-at-home mom as a way to start conversations around the dinner table that get beyond "How was your day?" Topics such as favorite summer memory, what you'd love to try, and superpower you'd like to have quickly take conversations to the next level. People begin sharing, talking, and laughing. Five editions are available: Original, Slumber Party, Love & Marriage, New Parents, and Faith-Based. Each set is $15 and comes with 21 stones and a penny (for your thoughts) in a drawstring bag. They're made in Cleveland by disabled individuals and are available at www.pennystones.com, www.toastmasters.org, and www.amazon.com.
For those kids who are into sports, nothing gets them going like talking about their favorite team. It also opens the door for plenty of follow-up questions such as, "Why do you like that team? Who is your favorite player? When will the winning streak end?" and so on.
Bring up the past.
Tell your kids about their grandparents, about what you were like as a kid, about the day they were born, or any other fun family stories. Ask them how far back they can remember from their childhood, or pull our pictures from when they were even littler to see if they spark memories.
This is especially crucial in the tween and teenage years. Listen to your child's music. Look at the magazines she's reading and TV shows she's watching. Ask pop culture questions so you're up on their interests. But remember to make sure you don't ask questions that lead to "Yes" or "No" answers!
The dinner table is not a time to ask your child about homework. It's also not the time for you and your husband to discuss work. Respect when a child doesn't want to talk, but remind her she still has to sit at the table. You want your kids to know you value discussion and conversation but also understand that not everyone wants to contribute all the time.
Jeanne Muchnick is the author of Dinner for Busy Moms, which includes plenty more advice for how to get healthy meals on the table, even if you're not a cook. The mom of two picky-eating daughters lives in Larchmont, NY, and has also written for Parents and Woman's Day.